Looking for a new tripod? If so, you’ve probably considered the options; leg sections, material, carbon or aluminium, weight and of course height. These are all factors to consider, but have you thought about the head?
A tripod head is where all the real action happens. It enables you to adjust the camera position to ensure your shot is level, or if you feel the need, to reposition for an arty angled shot.
Ultimately a tripod head’s job is to give you the flexibility to fine-tune the composition and then hold the camera rock steady during capture.
Heads come in a variety of types and sizes; pan and tilt, geared, fluid, pistol and ball being some of the most popular.
When it comes a decent tripod head for you and your camera what should you be looking for?
Due to popularity which drives availability, the practical choice would state a ball head, and I have to agree, something like a 3 Legged Thing AirHed is the example I’ll use here.
There are three different options with different features; The AirHed 360, AirHed Switch and AirHed Neo. Which is right for you and what are the features of these AirHeds, and for that matter almost all ball heads?
In brief, here’s a breakdown of the three 3 Legged Thing AirHeds.
3 Legged Thing AirHed 360
This is the powerhouse of the AirHed family, able to hold a colossal 200kg of weight (without tripod legs). That meets the demands of almost any stills camera system you could wish to attach.
The AirHed 360 is suitable for Pro’s and enthusiasts, and with the Pano clamp head, it’s especially useful for photographers who set up on uneven ground to capture panoramic shots.
3 Legged Thing Switch
Fast and furious – the switch is my preferred option. It enables the quick release of your camera from the head.
It’s still a heavyweight with a max load of some 160kg (without tripod legs). Perfect for pros and enthusiasts who need to remove and replace the camera frequently.
3 Legged Thing Neo
Small and compact, the Neo is the ideal travel companion and day-to-day head for enthusiasts. It’s lightweight but can still hold a hefty 18 kg load.
The Neo is an ideal upgrade option for your legs.
Tripod ball head features you should look for.
First and foremost, you should be looking for a head that’s able to support the maximum weight of your camera, lens, filters and all.
Tripod manufacturers often refer to the weight of your camera kit as load (always maximum and never minimum), and it’s a figure you’ll see quoted on the boxes or spec sheets of most tripods.
A tripod and the attached tripod head will often have different maximum loads, with the lesser of each usually being the one that’s quoted if you buy a kit (that’s legs and head).
When you buy a head on its own, you’ll see that maximum load marked. For example, the AirHed 360 has a maximum load of 200kg (that’s more than two of me), and the Airhed Neo which is smaller has a max load of 18kg, a lot less, but still enough for almost any camera and lens combo you could consider.
This value of maximum load is quoted as the top down load, that means the camera is mounted directly on top of the tripod and not angled off to one side in a Dutch tilt.
Taking that the weight of your camera kit will ultimately affect your decision-making process, the first step to buying a tripod is to weight your kit; in the heaviest camera and lens combination you can imagine.
If you think that a Sony Alpha 7M3 with 12-24mm fitted, adapter and filter attached tips the scales at just over a kilo, that’s a fair amount of weight for a basic landscape kit. An A73 is small and lightweight and nothing compared with the bulk and weight of the Nikon D850 or Canon 5D MK IV.
A kilo or even two for a weighed D850 is still far off the 18 kg max load of the 3 Legged Thing Punks Billy or even entry-level Patti at 10kg with AirHed Mini.
Max load-wise there’s few if any limitations over which 3 Legged Thing tripod you opt for, whatever the camera system you’re using.
The legs of a tripod are designed to support the weight of the load; the head is designed to take that load and enable you to manipulate the position as quickly as possible so you can take the shot you want.
What should you be looking for?
- What system is used to attach the camera?
- Smoothness and adjustment of ball head motion
- Can the head pan?
- Are there guides to help you gauge the level?
Let’s look at each desirable feature and run through why they should be considered – first and foremost, the way the camera attaches to the tripod head. The standard approach is a base plate that bolts to the base of the camera and in turn clips into the top of the head. The most common base plate design is Arca Swiss; it’s simple yet effective.
Then you have the mechanism by which that plate fixes to the tripod head – either a quick release lever as seen on the 3 Legged Thing AirHed Switch, which enables you to attach and remove the head quickly, or the other option is a screw in clamp, as with the AirHed 360 and Neo. The choice comes down to personal preference.
Once attached, you have the mechanics of the head. Generally, the more you pay, the more features you get, but all ball heads should give you the ability to release and lock the ball to change the composition.
A crucial factor here is the smoothness of movement that you get as the ball is released. Any roughness in the movement will make it challenging to position the head accurately.
Another feature that can be handy is friction control. Many heads divide the friction and ball release, but the 3 Legged Thing AirHeds utilise a smart three bar internal mechanism which tightens or loosens onto the ball as the release knob is adjusted. It’s not friction control but gives instant and easy direct control and feedback as you adjust the camera’s position.
Pan or rotation of the head is also essential, and ideally, it should be separate from the movement of the main ball.
Most tripods will feature the pan at the base of the head which means you have to have the legs level. This is, of course, good practice, but as we all know isn’t always possible.
A feature of the AirHed 360 is that there is an additional pan control on the base plate clamp, as well as the base of the head. This means that even if you’ve been unable to level the legs, you can still utilise a pan for capturing stunning panoramic images.
Another feature to keep an eye out for is bubble levels. These small devices will help you to check that your tripod head is level. They’re again simple but effective.
There’s plenty of choices when it comes to tripod heads, so when choosing make sure the load capability meets the demands of your camera. Then make sure the head has the features you need. Being able to release and tighten a head to reposition a camera is one thing, but make sure that movement is smooth and progressive and check that it pans smoothly.
Many ball heads will have a drop in the casing; this is to quickly enable you to rotate the camera to portrait orientation if you don’t have an L-Bracket. Make sure that this drop is 90º as many will take you beyond this.
A tripod head, due to the seeming simplicity, can often be overlooked, but their function is essential. Choosing a good one that meets your demands is crucial to capturing stunning images.
For more information on 3 Legged Thing AirHeds please visit www.3leggedthing.com/airheds#ah360–section1